Three Takeaways from Pennsylvania's New, Fairer Congressional Map

Although there’s an obvious impulse to figure out whether Democrats or Republicans will come out ahead, it is Pennsylvania voters who, in fact, benefit most from the court’s intervention.

February 20, 2018

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court made major news on Presidents’ Day when it released a new — and much less biased — map for the state’s congressional elections. The dust around the new map hasn’t yet settled, and may not for a while. But several clear takeaways have already emerged.

1. The new map is a huge win for Pennsylvania’s voters.

Although there’s an obvious impulse to figure out whether Democrats or Republicans will come out ahead under the new map, it is Pennsylvania voters who, in fact, are the biggest beneficiaries of the court’s intervention.

The old map — an extreme partisan gerrymander enacted in 2011 — was easily one of the most biased of this decade, giving Republicans a significant advantage in turning their votes into seats. The old map guaranteed that Republicans would consistently win thirteen out of the state’s eighteen congressional seats in all but a Democratic tsunami. (In fact, Democrats would be stuck with five seats whether their share of the statewide vote was as low as 41 percent or as high as 55 percent.) This was no accident. The Republican legislators in charge of the redistricting process designed the map to maximize their party’s seats and insulate them from successful challenges. The result was a deeply unaccountable, Republican-dominated congressional delegation for this famously purple state.

The new map promises a congressional delegation for Pennsylvania that is more accountable to the state’s voters and more representative of their diverse interests. The map does not replace pro-Republican bias with pro-Democrat bias. It has much less of a partisan skew, period – allowing for fairer distributions of seats between the parties. Simulated elections under the new map — here, here, here, and here, for a sample — show Democrats now have the opportunity to win up to eleven seats in a very strong Democratic year." More importantly, the new map allows each party to win more seats as it wins more votes—scoring high in what redistricting experts call “responsiveness” — exactly what should happen under a fair map.

The new map avoids precisely what the Pennsylvania Supreme Court sought to avoid: “artificially entrenching representative power,” the most pernicious harm that extreme partisan gerrymandering is inflicting on our elections.

2.  The debate over the new map will continue, even if it shouldn’t.

Although the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s word should be the last on this subject, opponents of the new map have said that they will continue to contest it. The Republican legislators who defended the old map at trial have already indicated they will file a federal lawsuit to invalidate the new plan. And, this morning, President Trump jumped into the mix, urging Pennsylvania Republicans to take their challenge “all the way to the [U.S.] Supreme Court if necessary.” For all this grandstanding, the likelihood of any kind of challenge getting traction is low.

The precise dimensions of the rumored suit are unclear. But, if it looks at all like the emergency motion the old map’s defenders filed with the U.S. Supreme Court last month to try to block the process of redrawing the map, it will likely fail. (That motion argued that the state court had usurped the legislature’s power to redistrict under the Elections Clause.) Justice Alito tossed the motion without even referring it to his colleagues on the Court. And, as Rick Hasen explains, Justice Alito was right to do so, because the challenge was wholly meritless.

The defenders of the old map also lack clear support from within their own party. Partisan gerrymandering has emerged as an issue for both parties. Ohio Republicans worked with citizen groups and Democrats to reform congressional redistricting in their state. And a large contingent of Republican legislators and elected officials have joined with their Democratic counterparts to push courts to end the practice, moving prominent Republicans like John McCain, John Kasich, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Larry Hogan to the forefront of the conversation.

As this emerging bipartisan chorus is making clear, extreme partisan gerrymandering is taking an intolerable toll on our democracy, harming Democrats in Wisconsin and Republicans in Maryland alike. Partisans working to preserve the practice are operating on an island that’s growing smaller by the day.

3. Extreme partisan gerrymandering is a rare bug, not a widespread feature, of redistricting.

Extreme partisan gerrymandering is a major threat to our democracy. But, as the Pennsylvania saga reminds us, it can only emerge under specific and uncommon circumstances.

The main circumstance? Single-party control of the redistricting process. That’s exactly what Republicans enjoyed in 2011, when they held both the legislature and the governor’s mansion. With control over all the levers in the redistricting process, they were able to push through an extreme partisan gerrymander.

This time around, Republicans had to share the levers with others. And it showed in the results. Control over this winter’s redistricting process was split between the Republican-dominated legislature and the Democratic governorship: the legislature was free to develop a new map, but Governor Wolf held a veto over whatever they produced. As things played out, Governor Wolf chose to exercise his veto power to reject a map that he believed unfairly benefited Republicans. The map then moved to the state Supreme Court, which received input from various stakeholders for constructing a new congressional plan. The end product of this process — which featured several checks that prevented any one group of legislators from dominating the redistricting conversation — was a map that was fairer to voters.

As Pennsylvania’s experience suggests, the worst abuses of our redistricting processes occur when the legislators of one party can act unilaterally. Anything that can cut down on that power — whether it’s splitting control over the process between parties, getting courts involved, or turning over mapping to independent redistricting commissions — can go a long way to restoring some basic fairness to our system.

(Image: Supreme Court of Pennsylvania)